Photokina 2010 Live. Do we want an arms race, or innovation?

PHOTOKINA 2010, COLOGNE, GERMANY, September 21, 2010. The calm before the storm, a few hours now before Photokina begins is a good time to take stock of where Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus and Panasonic are up to with their respective approaches to the market. Because in a few hours, that could all change.

Ahead of schedule yesterday, completely out of the blue came the Fuji X100 APS-C rangefinder. If affordable, the X100 has raised the bar for what a prosumer digital camera should look and feel like. It has the potential if priced as it should be, to significantly challenge the stranglehold of Leica, who have cornered the market, making it more exclusive and more expensive than it should be! We need the Fuji X100 rangefinder, and to enjoy the feel of taking pictures again.

In the video DSLR side, my overriding feeling prior to Photokina is that the market needs innovation like never before. I am tired of the incremental yearly updates and charmless plastic DSLRs which bring absolutely no innovation to the market, and just refine an established concept to the Nth degree.

From the DSLR video perspective this site assumes, it has been particularly frustrating. Cameras like the Canon 7D, 550D are 60D are cynical products and for over 18 months DSLR video has not moved forward in terms of specifications. Even the Nikon D7000 is late to the market, and offers very little new.

Fuji, a much smaller company than both Canon and Nikon have just shown both of them how to do a prosumer camera in an innovative way.

Rather than be caught up in the hugely expensive arms race of refining CMOS sensor technology and lenses year on year, Fuji have taken some simple steps that the rest are too scared to do because they want to consolidate their huge existing market shares.

Here are they key things that the Fuji X100 brings to the market that others lack.

Build quality
Who’s lacking? The Panasonic GH2

Panasonic took the G2’s body, itself a refined version of the original G1 body which feels even lower grade than before and called it the GH2. The technology inside deserves a better house. The GH2 is a premium product, with a price upon release probably around the £1400 mark with the kit lens. And yet it has the plastic body of a 2 year old £150 G1, with a faux leather style grip. That’s not innovation, that’s profiteering and assuming customers do not want their cameras to be durable, stylish and nice in terms of fit and feel.

How is Fuji better?

35mm film cameras and rangefinders used little known exotic materials like metal and leather. Amazing! In this age of cheap plastic, Fuji dared to use materials which actually have some kind of authenticity and style. It makes a nice clunk when you lay it down, and it feels cold when you pick it up. In sunlight it glistens like a jewel rather thsn a slimy oily lump of black plastic. Simple stuff. Yes it may be slightly more expensive. Add the extra £100 to the price tag that these materials add to the manufacturing costs of each camera though, and I’d happily pay it.

The X100 makes the Olympus EP1 look like a toy.

Who’s lacking? Canon, Nikon.

Whilst Canon may have the worlds best CMOS semiconductor manufacturing plants and the biggest resources to throw at the camera arms race, they have shown shockingly little innovation. Let’s look at the evidence.

• My Casio compact camera in 2001 had a Canon F2 lens. It took almost 9 years for Canon to put an F2 lens on their own digital camera, in the form of the S90.
• Canon’s G line of compacts have maintained the same body design and basic functionality for 5 iterations. The G12 is the most conservative update yet, featuring basically no new innovative functionality of note over the year old G11.
• Canon released the same DSLR 3 times in the space of 12 months, with the 7D, 550D and 60D all recycling the same parts already developed. The amazing addition of a hinge on the 60D was frankly laughable. Hinges have been around on doors for at least 1000 years now!! Why did it take Canon 10 years to give us the option of a rotating screen on a DSLR? Refining the hinge? No – they’re too scared to break the mould.
• A Contax 35mm SLR from the 1970’s has a much bigger viewfinder than almost any Canon DSLR available today, including the 1D Mark IV. The Contax SLR is not a luxury camera and it was even cheap upon release 30 years ago. So why is this? Why do even full frame DSLRs like the 5D Mark II have such small viewfinders in comparison to film cameras?
• The 5D Mark II is a conservative camera. Whilst it is innovative in terms of the sensor, this is mostly a result of a very expensive R&D and manufacturing programme – not innovation. In terms of the functionality and design, video mode aside, this could be a film camera.

In short, the market needs a kick up the arse. Let’s hope there are some innovative surprises to come at Photokina, that will further DSLR video after a good 18 months of stagnation.

Nikon meanwhile are about 12-18 months behind everybody else on almost everything apart from an admirable approach to AF and low megapixel counts for better low light performance.

Again though, these are not innovative new features like the Hybrid Optical VF on the Fuji X100 which beams electronic heads-up info into a true rangefinder OVF. Yes they have great lenses, great cameras – but they’re not innovative or new! Even Sony have showed more innovation (with the pelix mirror A55 despite it’s crippled video functionality) than Canon and Nikon.